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Creativity at work: new ways to help your company break out of a rut

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If you want your business to succeed, you have to get creative.

These days, companies see the value in thinking different and are experimenting with flexible work schedules and personal project time in the hopes that it will spark the kind of outside-the-box thinking that could lead to the next big thing.

But instead of focusing all your employees’ energies on one giant innovation, the key to a truly creative workplace is to think small, says consultant and design thinking strategist Susan Gorbet.

“We have a thought experiment we like to use,” she says. “If you had a certain amount of wood and steel, for instance, and you were trying to hit a bullseye, would you make one spear or many darts?”

While the answer seems obvious, there’s something about a giant spear of an idea that keeps people hypnotized. “They make a satisfying 'thunk' when you throw them,” says Gorbet. “And darts are these teeny little things. But actually, they reduce risk. You’re able to toss one out and see what happens.”

1. Moving from capability to possibility

Gorbet guides companies and individuals through “design thinking” — a collaborative, people-focused way to generate ideas — in order to help them reach their potential and navigate an ever-changing business world.

“We’re moving away from capability to possibility,” said Gorbet. “Transformation is happening all around us, so to be able to keep up, and even to be able to look ahead, you need to be able to take your own perspective outside its usual rut.”

2. A culture of creativity

She’s not alone in that belief, and the pros of a more creative workplace extend beyond idea generation and into overall better workplace culture. According to a 2016 Guardian article, “organisations that foster a workplace culture of creativity are likely to have happy, motivated employees who are more loyal and more productive.”

That explains why companies like Google and 3M have programs that encourage employees to use part of the workday to just do...whatever. Aside from making employees happy, it’s the smart thing to do, as studies show allowing the mind to wander can result in some of the best creative problem solving. One academic paper suggests that “mind wandering may evoke a unique mental state that may allow otherwise opposing networks to work in cooperation.”

And while all of these tools seem aimed at fostering great big a-ha moments, it really is the little things that make a difference. “It’s important to remember that creative thinking doesn’t need to be big to be better,” said CEO of the American Heart Association Nancy Brown in an op-ed for Fortune. Gorbet agrees. In fact, she says “I think this is a mistake that a lot of businesses make—they make these giant innovation initiatives. Those kinds of things are actually antithetical to creativity and innovation.”

So what do you need to know about making your workplace more creative?

3. Making products more human

Whatever your product, from software to clothing, one thing’s for sure, these days it needs to be more human. People don’t just want stuff, they want possibility. Gorbet no longer asks what the customer wants to own, but instead asks them “How do you live?” Says Gorbet: “You don’t actually want a coffee maker, you want a coffee in the morning. And that is a key perspective shift.” That very shift is the reason that creative thinking will get you places.

4. Breaking out of your rut

Your team likely can’t innovate at breakneck pace all of the time, but there are some signs that you might need to shake things up and infuse some creativity into the job. “One of the things we’re seeing [from clients] is the same old way of doing things isn’t getting the same results,” says Gorbet. Sticking with the first good idea that worked can help get your company off the ground, but when “it just doesn’t feel like it’s working anymore,” as Gorbet says, it’s time to think a little differently. 

5. Brainstorming for creativity

Gorbet employs many tactics to break people out of their thinking ruts, like brainstorming absolutely impossible ideas that could never happen, or considering how a completely different industry would go about solving a problem. Those are some of the big picture exercises, but her best advice is still “Start small. Iterate.” Creating connective cycles is the best way to ensure that your brightest ideas have the time and space they need to grow and actually be put into action.

6. Why you should try it

Still feeling skeptical about making your workplace more creative? Consider this: “Creativity and innovation happen in the boundaries, at the edges of something,” says Gorbet. “Allowing teams to make different rules and try different things, that’s where you get these new ideas and possibilities.” And best of all, being creative at work is fun! “It’s a joyful way of working. To be able to be creative, to be collaborative, to come up with new ideas—it feels great,” says Gorbet.

“It’s a better way to work.”